With a month to go in the regular season, the Finals picture remains extremely unclear with the Panthers, Broncos, Sharks, Tigers and maybe even the Warriors fighting for the final two spots in the top eight.
While every game over the final four weeks of the season is worth two competition points, there’s an extra advantage up for grabs whenever any of the sides involved in that battle for the last two positions play each other.
Such an example presents itself on Friday night with Brisbane hosting Penrith at Suncorp Stadium. Should the Panthers win it would put them three points clear of the Broncos, but if the home team gets up they’ll leapfrog Ivan Cleary’s side and start to seriously believe that September footy is a realistic prospect.
Penrith are coming off a tremendous 26-20 victory over Cronulla last Friday night, with the victory highlighted by the performances of the club’s next generation of stars.
Brisbane meanwhile narrowly escaped with the points over the Cowboys, scoring in the dying moments of what was one of the year’s more mundane contests.
If you think you know what’s going to happen in this game, you’re lying.
Here we have perhaps the competition’s two most inconsistent teams, with every result believable given the way they’ve gone up and down like yo-yos this season.
Both sides would have grabbed plenty of confidence out of their victories last weekend. Brisbane desperately needed the win after being spanked by competition leaders Melbourne the previous week, while the Panthers were still stinging from that disappointing loss to Canterbury when they took the field at Panthers Stadium last Friday night.
Penrith’s young guns certainly stole the show, but with youth comes inconsistency and there’s certainly some concern that the likes of Darius Boyd, Anthony Milford and Andew McCullough could expose some of the team’s weaknesses.
That’s why the return of James Maloney is so important. Despite Matt Burton’s excellent debut, a clash of this nature on the grand Suncorp Stadium stage needs good game management, and Maloney certainly offers that.
For me it’s the battle of the forwards that offers the contest’s most intriguing sub-plot. The likes of Matt Lodge, Payne Haas and Tevita Pangai Junior have been dominant in Brisbane’s victories this season, while James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau and James Tamou have really stood up for Penrith. You can even throw Moses Leota into that mix – he’s gone from a fringe first grader to one of the first blokes you’d select each week, and most importantly he appears to be having fun doing it.
Suncorp Stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the Panthers, including earlier this year when the Wests Tigers blew them off the park in Magic Round. Brisbane also put 50 on Penrith at Suncorp last season.
That home ground advantage could be enough to get Brisbane home, but I’m willing to back that the Panthers will take this opportunity to go three points clear of the Broncos with open arms.
If the Panthers can survive the first 20-25 minutes, I’m confident they’ll do enough as the match draws on to win. There’s just too much enthusiasm there at present.
Tip: Panthers by 8.
The Panthers and Broncos play at Suncorp Stadium on Friday, August 16 at 7.55pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.